Twitter Is A Great Tool. What Happens When It’s Wrong?

By now, thanks to incidents like the earthquake in Haiti, the recent revolution in Tunisia and the shooting of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, most people are coming to grips with the fact that Twitter is effectively a real-time news network — like a version of CNN that is powered by hundreds of thousands of users around the world. But what happens when that news network is spreading mis-information? That happened during the Giffords shooting, when the congresswoman was initially reported to be dead, and there are other more recent cases as well: on Wednesday, for example, reports of a shooting in Oxford Circus in London, England swept through the Twitter-sphere but turned out to be a mistake.

The British incident appears to have been caused by two coincidental events: according to several reports, one was an email about a police training exercise involving a shooting in Oxford Circus, which somehow got into the wrong hands and was posted as though it was the real thing. Meanwhile, another Twitter user posted an unrelated message about a TV commercial “shooting” in the area, and the combination of those two things helped to fan the flames of hysteria for a number of hours about buildings being locked down and police sharpshooters being brought in, etc. — which can be seen in the chronicle of tweets collected by one Twitter observer at the site Exquisite Tweets.

In the case of Rep. Giffords, in the minutes following the initial reports of the shooting, a number of outlets reported that the congresswoman had been killed, and these reports made their way onto Twitter — in some cases because the reporters for those news outlets posted them, and in other cases because users heard or saw the reports and then tweeted about them. For hours after the shooting these erroneous reports continued to circulate, even after the reporters and media outlets themselves had posted corrections. Andy Carvin of National Public Radio, for example, spent a considerable amount of time correcting people about the report that he posted, but it continued to be re-tweeted.

This led to a discussion by a number of journalists in the days that followed (including me, in a Twitter chat for web journalists) about how to handle an incorrect tweet. Should it be deleted, to prevent the error from being circulated any further? A number of reporters and bloggers said that it should — but others, such as Salon founder Scott Rosenberg and Carvin (who described his thoughts in this comment at Lost Remote), argued that the error should be allowed to remain, but that whoever posted it should do their best to update Twitter with the correct information. Craig Silverman of Regret The Error, who wrote a post cataloguing the erroneous reports, has also described a way in which Twitter could implement a correction function, by tying any correction to the original tweet.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that Twitter is by definition a stream of content. It never stops flowing, and during breaking news events it flows so quickly it’s almost impossible to filter it all, or be sure of what is correct and what isn’t. And because it is an asynchronous experience — meaning people step away from it and then come back repeatedly — there is no way to guarantee that everyone is going to see an update or a correction, or to stop them from re-tweeting incorrect information.

It’s possible that Twitter might be able to either embed corrections or tie errors and updates together using its so-called Annotations feature, which the company was working on last year and had originally hoped to launch in the fall. But work on that project was apparently put on hold while the company launched a revamped website version of the service and sorted out some other matters. It’s not clear whether Annotations will be revived, but the idea behind it was that information about a tweet — or “meta data” such as location or a number of other variables — could be attached to it as it travelled through the network, something that might work for corrections as well (as noted in a comment below, the Poynter Institute is also working with programmer Adrian Holovaty, founder of EveryBlock, to try and develop a correction mechanism outside of Twitter).

Twitter problem isn’t a new one. Traditional media have struggled with the issue as well, with newspapers often running corrections days or weeks after a mistake was made, with no real indication of what the actual error was. In a sense, Twitter is like a real-time, distributed version of a news-wire service such as Reuters or Associated Press; when those services post something that is wrong, they simply send out an update to their customers, and hope that no one has published it in the paper or online yet.

Twitter’s great strength is that it allows anyone to publish, and re-publish, information instantly, and distribute that information to thousands of people within minutes. But when a mistake gets distributed, there’s no single source that can send out a correction. That’s the double-edged sword such a network represents. Perhaps — since we all make up this real-time news network — it’s incumbent on all of us to do the correcting, even if it’s just by re-tweeting corrections and updates as eagerly as we re-tweeted the original.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Florian Boyd